by Diana Bulls
Since the beginning of agriculture and construction, mankind has needed to move the earth’s soil. It was first moved by man in baskets carried on the head or hung on poles carried on the shoulders. Later, man learned to use domesticated animals to help move the soil. Flemish farmers were the first to use horses to pull a Slip/Scoop to move the soil. This implement remained in use until the middle of the 1800s when the Buckboard was developed in the western United States. This was basically a board pulled by horses in an upright position so that it scraped and pushed the soil to smooth and level the ground. There was a tail board where the driver would stand until he wanted to dump the soil. Buckboards and Slip/Scoops were used throughout the San Joaquin Valley from the 1840s to the 1890s.
This all changed when a Scottish immigrant named James Porteous, the son of a wheelwright and blacksmith, brought his skills with him to the States. He arrived in Fresno in 1877 and opened a wagon shop in the downtown area where he fabricated buggies and heavy wagons.
Porteous recognized the dependence of Central Valley farmers on irrigation and the need for a more efficient means of constructing canals and ditches in the sandy soil. Working with the simple buckboard, he made several design improvements and called it the Buck Scraper, which was patented in 1882. Porteous made additional improvements and received his second patent for the Dirt Scraper on April 3, 1883.
During the same time, three Selma men were working on overcoming some of the problems with the Dirt Scraper. This second invention had three major problems: (1) rolling resistance of the iron wheels in sandy soil, (2) a tendency to overrun the horses on firm down slopes and (3) short runners sinking into sandy soil. William Deidrick eliminated the wheels by using long, flat runners — an important step in the evolution of the final design. He received a patent for this on April 17, 1883. Frank Dusy and Abijah McCall received a patent on June 15, 1885 for their use of curved runners and chains to control and adjust the dump load.Porteous continued making improvements to his initial design and received a third patent in November 1883. Finally, he bought the patents held by Deidrick, Dusy and McCall, gaining sole rights to the scraper. Using some of the features of these patents, along with his own inventions, he perfected the scraper which became known as the Fresno Scraper and commonly known as a “Fresno.” The “Fresno” was built at Porteous’ shop, the Fresno Agricultural Works. A two-horse model sold for $28 and a four-horse model sold for $37.
The Fresno Scraper is the basis of most modern earthmoving scrapers, being able to scrape and move soil while also dumping it at a controlled depth. The blade scooped up the soil, which ran along a C-shaped bowl that could be adjusted to alter the angle of the bucket to the ground, so that the dirt could be deposited in low spots (“Figure 8” below). Between 1884 and 1910, thousands of “Fresnos” were produced and used in agriculture and land leveling, road and railroad grading and in general construction. They were shipped throughout the United States, as well as South America, India, the Orient, South Africa, Australia and Europe. The “Fresno” played a vital role in the construction of the Panama Canal and later served the US Army in World War I.
The Fresno Scraper was one of the most important agricultural and civil engineering machines ever made. In 1991, the Fresno Scraper was designated as an International Historic Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. James Porteous was credited with 46 inventions, most of which had to do with farming equipment important to the farmers of the Central San Joaquin Valley. The Fresno Agricultural Works in now known as Fresno Ag Hardware, located on North Blackstone Avenue.